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Abortion ruling cramps welcoming spirit at Wild Goose Festival

Consistent Life Network has sponsored a table at the progressive Christian festival since 2013 but was nearly deprived of its spot this year.

A breakout session meets during the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, N.C., on July 13, 2019. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

(RNS) — Blowback from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has caused organizers of an eclectic, progressive Christian gathering in the North Carolina woods to first reject, then welcome back, a longtime sponsor because of the group’s anti-abortion views.

Founded in 2010, Wild Goose, which has been described as a faith-based Burning Man, has drawn thousands each July to take in concerts, “justice camps,” storytelling sessions and writing workshops and to hear progressive headliners such as Poor People’s Campaign co-founders the Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis, Diana Butler Bass and Brian McClaren. Since 2013, the festival had been held in a national forest close to North Carolina’s border with Tennessee. 

After skipping 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and being delayed in 2021, this year’s festival opened Thursday (July 14) and runs through Sunday in Union Grove, North Carolina, near Charlotte.

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The entrance to Wild Goose is flanked most years with booths and tables leased by numerous seminaries and liberal faith activist groups, such as Sojourners, Creation Care Alliance and NETWORK, as well as major Christian denominations. But its organizers invite conversations about social justice issues from every quarter: “We refuse to be enemies with anyone,” its website declares. “We are hospitable to all and welcome people of all faiths, and no faith, to seek the common good together.”

Consistent Life Network has had a table at Wild Goose since 2013 and had already paid to secure a place this year.

In May, however, a week after Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion leaked, signaling the court would overturn Roe, Tim Kerr, partner relations and wings coordinator, wrote to Lisa Stiller, a CLN board member, citing the Supreme Court decision and saying, “At this time we feel it would be in the best interest of both parties to rescind the opportunity for Consistent Life to be a sponsor at the festival. I’m so very sorry to share this news but I hope you can see the position we’re in.”

Stiller, who has worked CLN’s table at Wild Goose, wrote back: “There are many people at Wild Goose who also subscribe to the Consistent Life theory.” She reminded Kerr that CLN addresses topics beyond abortion in its advocacy, opposing war, racism, capital punishment and poverty. “We have always held wonderful conversations with people, and were constantly told how glad people are to see us there.”

Kerr, who did not respond to requests for an interview, told Stiller three unidentified people affiliated with Wild Goose had read Consistent Life’s website, which included mention of a project to “defund Planned Parenthood,” and moved to have Consistent Life removed from the festival.

Consistent Life logo. Courtesy image

Consistent Life logo. Courtesy image

Eventually, Wild Goose staff and board members came together for further discussions, and the decision to remove CLN from the festival was reversed. Consistent Life would be allowed to have a table at the festival, and Stiller could still do a planned workshop.

Wild Goose board member Terry Gonda intervened and contacted Stiller. In a phone interview, Gonda said removing CLN from the festival was “a mistake” and “a knee-jerk reaction” made by Kerr, who she said was “without authority” to do so. 

By that time, CLN’s logo had been absent from the website promoting the festival for almost two months, and the group was in limbo while negotiations were taking place. Gonda initially said Wild Goose would not relist CLN as a partner, saying its logo “was triggering people,” but Wild Goose reversed itself again, and the logo reappeared on the website July 8.

“We are trying to hold a very messy space,” Gonda said, “and the Wild Goose has always been a messy place. Unfortunately it is only getting messier.”

Shane Claiborne, founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, is an evangelical Christian anti-gun violence, anti-death penalty campaigner (and frequent RNS contributor) who helped launch the festival. He told RNS that in 2019, festival organizers had told him he would need to “release a public statement in affirmation of gay marriage,” he said, to be allowed to speak on the festival’s main stage, where he had drawn large crowds in previous years.

Claiborne did not submit the letter on principle, he said, because “Jesus-loving, Bible-loving Christians can come to different conclusions on abortion and same-sex marriage — in part because Jesus did not directly mention them,” adding, “Pope Francis could not speak at the Wild Goose, Sister Helen Prejean couldn’t speak on the Wild Goose main stage unless she had that public statement. It has become the vetting mechanism. That’s also problematic for me.”

“I feel pretty conflicted because I know that the Wild Goose is a very life-giving place to many people and has proved to be that over the years,” said Claiborne.

Gonda said the rule ensures that LGBTQ people feel “psychologically safe” at Wild Goose.

The Rev. William Barber, top center, addresses attendees at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, N.C., on July 13, 2019. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

The Rev. William Barber, top center, addresses attendees at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, N.C., on July 13, 2019. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Bill Samuel, a former board president of Consistent Life who volunteered for five years at CLN’s Wild Goose table, said, “We had a lot of interesting conversations with people. Each year, numbers of people would take literature and some of them signed up for our list. A number were quite glad to see us because this was where their heart was.” He added, “Some disagreed with us on abortion, but most were not hostile.”

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Victoria Turner of Minneapolis, who identifies as LGBTQ and was visiting Wild Goose for the first time, agreed psychological and physical safety are important, but said, “Saying that somebody has to abide by rules means free speech goes out the window.” 

The Rev. Stephanie Moon, a Disciples of Christ pastor in rural North Middletown, Kentucky, was surprised to hear Wild Goose limit discussions about gay marriage and abortion. Pastoring a rural church, Moon said, requires embracing diverse opinions. “I need to be able to make room at the table even for those who might disagree,” Moon said.

Gonda said her plan is to “work with Consistent Life after the festival. How do we keep moving forward on better conversation? How do we get past this knee-jerk reaction and people freaking out?”

Eds. Note: Victoria Turner’s name has been corrected. We apologize for the error.

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